Jun 18, 2013

[Books] The Invention of Hugo Cabret

In my grade school days, I used to spend a LOT of time at the school library. I remember that we had a borrowing limit of up to 3 books at any one time and I always made sure to maximize that limit at all times. Oh yes, I have many, many fond memories of that library.

I particularly remember a significant period when I went through a Caldecott phase. For those unfamiliar with the award, books are awarded the Caldecott medal particularly because of their art. And so I made it a point to borrow every single Caldecott book that I could get my hands on. I never got into a Newbery phase, which seems a little weird in hindsight.

So I only learned about the book The Invetion of Hugo Cabret after watching the 2011 CGI animated feature film Hugo. I enjoyed the movie a lot and this is one of the rare cases when the movie actually helped me appreciate the book even more. You see, this being a Caldecott Medal book means that the art in itself was worth celebrating beyond just the story. And now I realize that the movie did a great job of giving proper homage to the art that defined the book to begin with.

Synopsis: The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a historical fiction book written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. It's a pretty thick book clocking in at over 500 pages, but a lot of the book is dedicated to wordless picture pages that are integral to telling the story. The book won the 2008 Caldecott Medal despite it being a novel and not just a picture book.

The protagonist of our story is an orphan boy named Hugo Cabret, who has made his home in a train station in Paris. Hugo pretty much lives between the walls of the station, where he dutifully keeps all of the station clocks maintained and telling the right time. But beyond his clock keeping efforts, Hugo is a bit of a petty thief with the station toy store his usual victim.

But one day he's finally caught in the act by the owner of the toy booth and taken from him is his precious notebook. The notebook contains sketches of what appears to be a clockwork man - a project of his that he has been working on in secret from his station lair. Now Hugo has to find a way to get his notebook back and eventually complete the clockwork construct. For you see, the device is somehow a link to his dead father and yet also tied to the secret past of the toy maker himself.

Now this book is a story that is told in both words and pictures. In fact, practically the first 50 pages of the book are purely images that help convey what is going on in the story. More than any introduction could have done in words, we first encounter the unique world of Hugo Cabret through those beautifully drawn images that lead us on a little adventure as we follow him around the station. In fact, these full-page images are practically storyboards for the movie itself - hence my respect for the creators of the movie who made sure to follow the book as closely as possible.

This is not to say that this novel is light on writing either. The story that is told through words remains just as vibrant and magical as the pictures themselves. And this is not about pictures that illustrate what is being described in the other parts of the books. The words pick up where the pictures end and vice-versa. And in this regard I have full respect for Selznick's abilities as a storyteller. In this book he was able to masterfully utilize both aspects of the illustration and the words to tell one coherent tale. And it is certainly a story worth enjoying to the fullest.

Some friends have complained how expensive the book is for what appears to be "just" a children's book or something, and I can't fully blame them. I only picked up the book because it was discounted as part of a store-wide sale at the time. However after having gone through the unique reading experience that is this book, I can safely say that it's more than worth the retail price. Seriously, you cannot go wrong with owning a copy of this book.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a magical experience captured in a book. It is a celebration of the silent era of movies and the fulfillment of a child reconnecting with his father in an unexpected way. It's a great book for readers of any age and more than deserves a full 5 gorgeous illustrated pages out of a possible 5.

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